Monday, July 8, 2013

When Does 3rd Person Become 1st Person? The Bone Man by Wolf Haas.

Someone should write a paper about this question.

Third person narrators have begun to force their way into the novel, to the point that they are becoming characters.  Does this then make them first person narrators?

Think about Death, the narrator of Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief.  While Death does not take part in the novel's action, he observes it, comments on it, talks to the reader as though he is a person.  By the end of the book, most readers would count him as a major character.  Does this make The Book Thief a first person narration?

Think also of the narrator in Laurent Binet's novel HHhH who not only observes and comments, but presents one course of action only to say that's not what really happened on the following page.  Binet's narrator eventually become so attached to his two protagonists that he cannot continue the narration because he cannot bare to see them die.  The novel's protagonists struggle against the Nazi occupiers of their country, but this conflict almost falls to a secondary status by the novel's end, second to the narrator's conflict with his own reluctance to  finish the story.

In both books the reader comes to see the narrators as characters; each has as much personality as any of the other characters in their respective books, Mr. Binet's narrator probably has more.  So are these first or third person narrators?

The same is true with The Bone Man by Wolf Haas, translated from the German by Annie Janusch.  The Bone Man, the second of seven Detective Brenner books by Hass, concerns the discovery of human bones found in a pile of waste in the cellar of a wildly popular fried chicken restaurant in the Austrian countryside.  Brenner, who is on the scene for what appeared to be unrelated reasons, is called on to investigate this gruesome discovery.

While The Bone Man works well as a detective novel  in the classic sense, it also fits into what I think is a trend of third person narrators who become characters in their own right, blurring the distinction between character and narrator.

This crept up on me in The Bone Man.  It wasn't until halfway through the book that I began to notice the narrator's intrusions into the story.  Witty asides that should have been coming from Detective Brenner, began to come from the narrator.  By the end of the book, he had begun to rival the main character as a force of personality all his own.

For example:

...As Brenner opened the gate, he felt Winkler's gaze at his back, and the Jurasic Rottweilers' gaze at his feet.  Now they say dogs can smell fear. And that's when they get really aggressive.  Because that must be, for a dog, like when a person, like you or me, walks by a bakery and becomes ravenous just from the smell...

...The two Rottweilers, very well behaved now--they obey that wisp of a woman, heel, incredible.  And you see, that's why I don't like dogs, one minute they're piratically tearing your head off, and the next they're pandering to you--if that's what you're looking for, you might as well just stick with people...

This should be a first person narration, Detective Brenner telling his story in the sort of first person voice Dashell Hammet used for Red Harvest.  Instead, like Binet and Zusak, his narrator becomes a kind of character, someone with a clear personality, conversational speech patterns, opinions and emotions.

So, is he still a third person narrator?  Strictly speaking?

I think this topic has the makings of a very good paper.

Someone should write it.


Jackie Bailey said...

If HHhH and The Book Thief are anything to go by then I love this new(?) trend! I may have to try The Bone Man just to see if I really love all books in with the narrator beomes a character in their own right.

James Chester said...

There used to be a clear character who was telling the reader a story she or he had heard. Think of Wuthering Heights or The Man Who Would Be King. This narrator was clearly a first person since he or she really knew the characters. These 3rd/1st person narrators sound just like first persons, but they are not 'people' who knew the characters in the story they tell.